It might be going a tad far to say overstatement is killing our democracy.
Hyperbole in politics has been around since the world’s second oldest profession followed the world’s oldest profession into existence. U.S. President Donald Trump is hardly the first to have gained high office through gifted manipulation of the fibber’s foghorn.
Yet we seem to have entered an era when things that could simply be said must be shrieked, and when ideas deserving of robust debate must be inflated beyond recognition to immutable ideological dictate.
Social media is the obvious scapegoat, but my sense is something more is turning the volume of virtually every message up to 11.
Think of the painfully silly kerfuffle over Conservative MP Michael Cooper’s treatment of a witness at a recent Commons committee hearing studying online hatred. Cooper took umbrage at the president of the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council, Faisal Khan Suri, who linked last winter’s mosque murders in New Zealand to “conservative” belief.
It was a point for fair objection and even correction. The connection to conservatism was sloppy thinking sandbagged by lazy articulation. Cooper, alas, went over the top with an embarrassing barracking of the witness, insisting that a Canadian testifying on invitation from a parliamentary committee should be “ashamed” of his words.
Not: “Sir, I believe your great enthusiasm before us has led you into error.”
Nor: “Might I recommend Russell Kirk’s fine old book The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot to better acquaint you with the meaning of conservatism?”
Sadly, none of the above.
The saga gets more shambolic. Despite being disciplined by Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, Cooper has become the mascot for all that ails Canadian Tories. Maclean’s magazine cited him as evidence of the party’s “bankruptcy.”
So one act of malfeasant hooting is amplified by media caterwauling into distortion beyond measure of the bare fact that Cooper is but a 35-year-old excitable boy in his first term as an MP. The party of Macdonald, Diefenbaker, Mulroney and Harper is hardly his to redefine.
None of which excuses his conduct, or exempts him from criticism and discipline.
But … bankruptcy? Couldn’t we dial the rhetoric back from 11?
Sadly, it seems we can’t – even when it comes to genuinely serious democratic matters. Our country suddenly finds itself in a kind of Mad Hatter’s debate over whether we are authentically guilty of “genocide” toward missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
International agencies are inquiring about us in that regard.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is being assailed for seeming to assent to the accusation against his fellow Canadians.
The debate seems to have become high-centred on whether the accusation made by the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry is true rather than questioning such horrendous verbal overstatement.
In fairness, those who produced the inquiry report might have believed it was a fitting word for centuries of appalling mistreatment of Indigenous inhabitants. But any reasonable historical consultation would have determined genocide is simply not the appropriate word for Canada’s past and present state policy toward Indigenous peoples.
We are not Rwanda. This is not the Holodomor. It’s not the Holocaust. It’s not even British imperial policy in Ireland in 1847.
Why, then, say we stand among those accused and found culpable in all of the above?
Because we have all become habituated to howling for political effect. We shout incessantly because we can’t be sure we will otherwise be heard. We have lost the art of rhetorical restraint because we have forgotten that the hard work of democracy demands much more than merely delivering the latest head-splitting marketing message.
So is our democracy in its death throes?
That would be at least a slight exaggeration. There’s still time to lower our voices, choose our words and stop talking long enough to listen to our neighbours.
The clock is ticking, though – hard as it might be to hear beneath the political noise at 11 enveloping us.
Peter Stockland is senior writer with the think-tank Cardus and publisher of Convivium.ca.